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Prepared for posting by Cathe Ziereis
Oconto County Herald
March 1, 2000
A History Of Logging In Oconto County

The Times-Herald continuing their publication of excerpts from the book, "A History Of Logging In Oconto County" from the McCauslin to Jab Switch. The author is Della Rucker. Photos and editing is by Diane Nichols, Oconto County Historical Association. The project coordination, is by Bruce Mommaerts of the Oconto Co. Economic Development Corp.


As any overview of the lumber industry in Oconto County makes clear, many of today's villages and settlements developed as a result of the logging, railroading and milling industries. Following are capsule histories of some of the Oconto County communities whose development was influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the lumber industry. These are not complete histories of the communities, since they focus on the roles that logging, milling and the railroads played in their development. Oconto, Suring, Gillette, and Mountain have all been the subject of very detailed local histories, which are listed in the bibliography at the end of this book.


Lying inland along the Pensaukee River, the unincorporated community of Abrams was first settled in the 1850s. At that time, the area along the Pensaukee River was dominated by huge virgin pine. Mills owned by F B. Gardner and the partnership of Busch & Hubble operated near the present village. Many of the earliest settlers were natives of New England, and wished to name their new settlement after Lowell or Portsmouth, Massachusetts, where many of them had grown up. However, when the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Western rail line was built through the area in 1881, the railroad opted to name its station for W J. Abrams, a Green Bay railroad investor who also served as a state representative in the 1860s and as mayor of Green Bay in the 1880s. Abrams owned large tracts of land including the parcel on which the depot was constructed. As often the case, the name given to the railroad depot soon became applied to the settlement, the post office, and eventually the town in which the new village was located.

By 1887, the village of Abrams boasted three sawmills and a shingle mill, as well as two hotels, three stores, and approximately thirty houses. By this time, however, timber supplies in the Pensaukee River area were nearly destroyed by both the Peshtigo Fire and the Pensaukee Tornado in the 1870s. Although these natural disasters and smaller forest fires had destroyed thousands of acres of timber, they also made southern Oconto County more desirable to farmers. New immigrants from Germany, Poland and other European nations found that the region's fertile soil was easier to farm because of the destruction of much of the timber. By the turn of the century, Abrams had become primarily a farming settlement oriented to the agricultural needs of the surrounding countryside.


This western Oconto County community received its first settlers in the 1880s, with most of these pioneers seeking homesteads and arriving from the eastern United States and Denmark. Named after three brothers who were among the first arrivals, most of Breeds late nineteenth century economy was dominated by subsistence farming and trade with Native Americans, who passed through on a well established trail to the Menominee Reservation, approximately two miles west of the settlement. In 1896, the Chicago &. Northwestern railway was extended through Breed from Gillett to Mountain; trade with lumberjacks soon augmented the community's income. The North Star hotel and tavern catered to the lumberjack trade. Later Breed area residents worked in many of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century lumber camps in the area. Some of those camps were operated by Peter Lundquist who lived in Breed from the 1890s to 1915, when he moved to Shawano to be closer to active logging areas. As in other communities, many area farmers worked in the woods in the winter, a practice which faded as the camps closed and dairy farming became a more profitable and labor-intensive activity. By 1914, August, Emil and Leo Elfe had established a small sawmill, which probably sold much of its product to local farmers and other residents.


Like Abrams, Brookside developed along the Pensaukee River and was initially settled by people from, New England and the eastern U.S. By 1856, J. P Davie and W H. Sawtell had built a small sawmill near the community, an enterprise that attracted additional settlers but which apparently closed during the financial panic of 1857. By the close of the Civil War, the Brookside vicinity had almost completely converted to farming. Some people, including a shoemaker named Wellington did profit from the river driving still being conducted in the Pensaukee River by making caulked boots for the river drivers.


The community of Chase took its name from the Chase & Dixie sawmill in operation along the Little Suamico River by 1867. Like other southern county communities, the combination of the Peshtigo Fire, the Pensaukee Tornado, and increasing farming activity essentially ended the lumber industry by the 1880s. In the 1890s and early 1900s, much of the remaining cutover land was purchased by the Hot Land Company which laid out new communities and encouraged numerous European immigrants, particularly Polish settlers, to begin farms in the Chase area.


The community of Frostville in the Town of Maple Valley began to develop in the 1870s, when a small group of settlers, including future Town of Armstrong founder A.C. Frost, arrived in the area. Frost became the settlement's first postmaster and requested that the post office be named after himself, a technique used by self-promoters across the midwest to insure their names and businesses were literally put on the map. Much of Frostville's nineteenth century development was assisted by a stagecoach route between Oconto and Mountain. Two small hotels, one owned by the Magnus Arveson family and one operated by Mike Peterson, catered to lumberjacks and other travelers. The railroad, however, eventually bypassed Frostville going through what is now Suring, a blow which eventually cost the small community most of its businesses.


Some of the history of Gillett has been discussed in earlier chapters, including Rodney Gillett's logging activities and the Great Northern Pail Company. Gillett's growth, however, stemmed from more than just these two endeavors. Located near the Oconto River ten miles upstream of Oconto Falls, virtually all of the river drives destined for, Oconto passed Gillett. Not only did such drives entertain local residents, they created demand for goods and services needed by the river drivers for whom Gillett was often the first sizable settlement they had seen in months. In 1883, Chicago & Northwestern built its line to Gillett and made the settlement the terminal depot on the line. From 1883 to 1896, when the line was extended through the remainder of the county, Gillett had a significant advantage over other northern Oconto County settlements. The city became the destination for supplies, equipment and lumberjacks bound for logging camps to the north. The business of transferring these cargoes off the trains and into the woods became a mainstay of Gillett's economy. The rail connection also made the community more attractive to industry. Within a few years the small community could boast a flour mill, cheese factory, machine works, brickyard, canning factory, bank, and a weekly newspaper, in addition to the planing and saw mills and the pail factory.


This community helped support several pine era logging camps in the woods to the north. Settlement began in earnest in the 1870s although Pat Kelly is reputed to have landed in the area as early as 1855. The community had a sawmill in the late 1800s, which, was initially run by the Mills brothers and later by Jay Durham. By the 1890s, Hickory had become eclipsed by the nearby resort community at Kelly Lake.


Kelly Brook flows from Kelly Lake into the South Branch of the Oconto River. The earliest Euro-American settlers to live along, this area included people moving inland from the area destroyed by the Peshtigo Fire. Like many other communities, most area residents participated in logging during, the winters and farming during the summers. A portable sawmill known as Kessler's was frequently used by farmers to cut their own timber into lumber for their own building uses.


Prior to the arrival of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad in 1896, the Lakewood vicinity had already become a center of logging in the area drained by McCauslin Brook, which had been logged by the Holt, Oconto, and Eldred Companies since the late 1880s. Businesses supplying the camps and providing services and entertainment for the lumberjacks soon developed. Despite a 1921 fire that destroyed almost all of the community's business district, Lakewood generally continued to prosper into the 1930s. The closure of most of the remaining lumber camps in the 1930s, however, spelled hard times for the community which had few other industries to support its tax base, and businesses.

One small side industry which had been operating in Lakewood since the early 1900s did come into its prime in the years following World War II. Small hunting and fishing resorts, including one at Maiden Lake owned by John Anderson and one at Boot Lake owned by Hick McConley, had been attracting serious hunters and fishermen from southern Wisconsin and Chicago since the area first became accessible by rail. By the late 1940s the resort industry in the northwoods began to develop in earnest, and Lakewood became a center of tourist activity.


Originally known as the Maple Valley settlement, Lena owes its location to the railroads. The first white settlers in this vicinity arrived in the late 1870s and consisted primarily of French Canadian immigrants. As was common in other areas populated by French-Canadians during this era, most of the Maple Valley residents engaged in small-scale logging, concentrating their work and their homes along Jones Creek, a tributary of the Little River. By 1879 the community  had become large enough to support a post office and, since the name "Maple Valley" had already been assigned to another Wisconsin post office, the recommendation of a new name fell to Oconto Postmaster George R. Hall. Hall submitted the first name of his future wife to the federal postmaster, and the choice was approved. In 1882, the Chicago, Milwaukee, & St. Paul Railway extended a line through the town. The nearly straight north-south route the railway chose passed close to the heart of the existing settlement.

By the time the railroad arrived, timber had become virtually exhausted in most of the Little River watershed. As hotels, saloons and other businesses began to be constructed near the new railway depot in the early 1880s, the center of the settlement began to shift from the creek to the depot. By 1902, the little village had an impressive six general stores, one furniture store, two blacksmith shops, a jeweler, a barber, two shoe stores, four hotels, and a total of seven saloons, four of which were connected to the hotels. By this time the community also had a sawmill, planing mill, and furniture factory as well as a large grist mill and grain elevators. The grist mill and elevators, as well as the proliferation of other businesses, resulted from the fact that the land, surrounding Lena had been primarily converted to farmland by the turn of the century. Such farms continued to power most of Lena's economy through much of the twentieth century, as wheat and grain cultivation were gradually replaced by the dairy farms seen throughout the area today. 

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